PSYCHO NOIR

©2019, by M. Keith Booker

If noir heist films de-mythologize crime by depicting criminals either as ordinary workers or as conniving backstabbers, some noir films went even further in that direction by depicting their criminal figures as psychopathic monsters, sometimes taking the films into the realm of horror. One such film is Betrayed (1944, directed by William Castle, appropriately best known for his work in the horror genre. Castle would go on to make a name for himself as the P. T. Barnum of late 1950s horror films, introducing a number of gimmicks to sell films such as House on Haunted Hill (1959). Castle would also go on to produce Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but it is his work as a director of off-beat, low-budget horror films that is most clearly anticipated by Betrayed, whose convoluted plot is unbelievable, contrived, predictable, and almost entirely beside the point, because the film is nevertheless able to create a highly effective sense of mystery and suspense, despite the almost nonsensical story. Originally released as When Strangers Marry), this film is unusual in many ways, but it is a classic illustration of the tendency of noir films to seem just slightly out of kilter, as if taking place in a parallel reality.

As the film begins, a man staggers into a bar wearing a lion’s head, unaccountably emitting a very realistic-sounding roar that sounds like that of the MGM lion. We will learn that this man is a drunken Sam Prescott (Dick Elliot), who openly flouts the fact that he is carrying $10,000 in cash and brags that he often carries even more. The film’s most trenchant social commentary will involve the fact that a lout like Prescott can be rolling in money, while decent, hard-working folks have to struggle just to get by. Meanwhile, the film’s central character is Millie Baxter (Kim Hunter), one of those decent folks, a naïve, small-town Ohio girl who, as the film begins, is traveling to New York to meet up with Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger), a man she recently married and whom she hardly knows. In her first scene, she takes momentary refuge in a train compartment occupied by a married couple and explains to them that she is going to meet her husband, who had to leave her on business on their wedding day and whom she only saw three times before their wedding. When Millie arrives in the big city, she finds that Paul has disappeared, but is surprised to run into old beau Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum), a traveling salesman who apparently takes his Boston terrier with him everywhere he goes. Fred kindly comes to her aid and helps her search for Paul, even though it is clear that he wants Millie for himself. It quickly becomes clear that Paul is the chief suspect in a recent murder-robbery, and that he has disappeared because he is on the lam. Paul resurfaces and attempts to flee town with Millie, passing through some genuinely strange territory, including a share-a-ride car trip and a basement “Negro” club in Harlem. In fact, this whole film is basically a sequence of weird individual scenes, stitched together by the wacky plot. All’s well that ends well, however, and the two lovers are finally able to leave New York by train for a proper honeymoon after Fred is revealed to be the killer—and also apparently a lunatic, given the bizarre way he breaks down under police questioning. Then, in one final moment of strangeness, the film’s final scene recapitulates Millie’s first scene, as a newly-married woman traveling by train to meet her husband, takes respite in the compartment occupied by Millie and Paul, who both appear to laugh at the repetition, even though Paul had not been involved in the first scene.

Though clearly a B-grade production, Betrayed is artfully made. Andrew Dickos, for example, notes how the lighting of the film (enhanced by classic film noir iconography such as flashing neon signs) “generates a veritable claustrophobia of black terror” (185). Perceptions can vary, of course, and one early reviewer, Manny Farber, actually praised the film for its straightforward realism and for a humanity free of artifice, despite certain “embellishments that are mainly snatched from German Expressionism” (cited in Palmer 13–14). I would argue, however, that these “embellishments” are actually central to the film and to the creation of an almost surreal atmosphere intended to capture in an expressionistic way the absurdities of modern urban life. And it is precisely the recognition of Betrayed as a participant in the film noir cycle (something that had not been identified when Farber was writing) that helps to focus these aspects of the film.

Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946) is a relatively up-scale noir film that features Olivia de Havilland in the dual role of identical twin sisters Terry and Ruth Collins. The film somewhat anticipates Brian De Palma’s later thriller Sisters (1973) as it delves into dark territory with the gradual revelation that Terry is a psychopathic killer, driven to murder due to her jealousy of Ruth. Luckily, psychiatrist Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) is “studying” them both and figures out the situation in the nick of time before Terry is able to do in both him and Ruth, despite numerous identity-switching shenanigans designed to throw him off. Elliott also hits on both sisters nonstop during his research, which was apparently deemed okay within the world of the film, but which strikes a rather discordant note today. In fact, a number of things about this film seem pretty strange, including Ruth’s oddly cheerful reaction to the revelation of Terry’s illness (and Terry’s subsequent arrest).

Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), shot on location (including scenes in Sing Sing prison) in a semi-documentary style for greater realism, is nevertheless highlighted by one of film noir’s most outrageous over-the-top performances, delivered by then-newcomer Richard Widmark as manically giggling psychopathic thug Tommy Udo. Such characters are common in film noir, of course, as are criminals who are basically good people, driven to crime by circumstances. Indeed, Widmark’s sadistic Udo is played off in the film against the protagonist, Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), himself a habitual criminal, but one who is presented as a decent individual who has simply had one bad break in life after another. Indeed, we learn that Bianco started off down the road to crime when he witnessed, as a young child, his own criminal father being shot down by police. Meanwhile, in the first scene of the film, we see Bianco and two accomplices entering the Chrysler building to rob a jewelry store—with voiceover narration explaining that Bianco has been driven to this crime because he needs the money to buy Christmas presents for children, his status as an ex-con has made it impossible for him to find a job.

The plot from this point forward is classic film noir, as one might expect in a film scripted by such masters of the form as Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. The robbery, of course, goes wrong, and Bianco is shot down by police, thus following in his father’s footsteps. He is, however, merely wounded, but he is subsequently convicted and sent to prison, after refusing to inform on his confederates in the crime. Later, he learns from reading the newspaper obituaries that his wife has committed suicide and that his children are now in an orphanage. He then gets more details during a prison visit by his kids’ former babysitter, Nettie (Coleen Gray), who turns out also to be the film’s voiceover narrator, in a rare case of a female narrator in film noir.

Bianco decides that he must get out of prison to save his kids, so he cuts a deal with prosecutor Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to help get evidence against Udo. This plan (as with most plans in film noir) goes awry—this time because a jury, for unexplained reasons, acquits Udi, despite the evidence supplied by Bianco. In the world of film noir, justice often decidedly does not prevail. Meanwhile, Bianco, now released from prison and given a new identity, marries the sweet, innocent Nettie (who, it turns out, has long been in love with him) and establishes a new home with her and the kids. With Udo now on the loose, though, this newly idyllic existence cannot, of course, last, though Udo is finally gunned down by police (after shooting and wounding Bianco), leaving open the possibility of a happy ending in this otherwise extremely grim noir.

Kiss of Death contains some striking scenes—the most iconic of which features Udo gleefully pushing an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs (and, presumably, to her death). But the film is most striking for its broad strokes in characterization and for its classic noir themes, including determinism, injustice, and the sheer cruelty of the world. The childlike-but-nurturing Nettie, of course, introduces a possible road to redemption, but the notion that she and Bianco will live together happily ever after is a bit hard to swallow given the texture of the rest of the film. Udo might be off the streets, but there are plenty more bad people and plenty more sources of trouble just waiting to be encountered.

Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), a Warner Bros. film, stars James Cagney, who had first been propelled to stardom in Warner’s The Public Enemy (1931), where he played Tom Powers, a gangster whom many felt was portrayed all too sympathetically. There was no danger of such complaints about Cagney’s portrayal of Cody Jarrett in White Heat, however. This film contains elements of several different genres, including the heist film and the prison film, but its focus is on Jarrett, a psychopathic killer with blinding migraines and an unnatural connection to his mother (played by Margaret Wycherly; meanwhile, he has a vicious hatred for almost everyone else, including his own wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), who is no bargain in her own right. Ultimately, Jarrett meets his demise in one of the most explosive endings in all of film noir.

The Prowler (1951) was one of five American films made by the left-leaning British director Joseph Losey before the darkening political climate in the U.S. forced him to flee to Europe to continue his career. The Prowler is in many ways a classic noir film, though it is unusual in that most of its characters seem relatively honest and virtuous, with the exception of its sociopathic protagonist. Even this sociopathic character, however, is less a true villain than a victim of social circumstances, and the social commentary in the film is unusually strong and overt. The central character is Los Angeles police patrolman Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a former high school basketball star in Indiana. He was in many ways, then, an all-American boy, though he also grew up poor, a fact of which he has always been intensely aware and to which he attributes his own inability to attain the American dream. As the film begins, Garwood and his partner Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) respond to a report of a prowler at the posh home of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), the wife of William Gilvray (Emerson Treacy), the wealthy host of a local late-night radio show. No prowler is found, but Garwood becomes interested in Susan—in a way that soon turns creepy enough to make clear that he himself is probably the prowler of the film’s title. Garwood later returns and eventually begins a romance with Susan (who also turns out to be from the same area in Indiana, giving them a point of contact), despite her initial reluctance.

Susan becomes all the more attractive to Garwood when a glance at her husband’s will reveals that she stands to inherit a small fortune upon the husband’s death. There is also clearly special attraction in the discovery that Susan grew up in a rich family, having all the advantages that Garwood has always longed to have. Indeed, this consciousness class difference becomes a central ingredient in Garwood’s feelings for Susan, which include a complex combination of genuine sexual attraction, class-based animosity, and class-based envy. In any case, Garwood clearly sees his relationship Susan as an opportunity for him to acquire the resources to realize his ultra-American fantasy of owning his own business. In particular, he has long dreamed of owning a motel in Las Vegas, so that, in good capitalist fashion, his property can earn money for him even while he sleeps.

Given all of these factors, it is only a matter of time until Garwood (whose fundamental sociopathology becomes more and more clear as the film proceeds) conceives of a plan to kill Susan’s husband, making it look like an accident that happens in the line of his duty as a policeman. A coroner’s inquest accepts Garwood’s story, Susan has her doubts, but she soon accepts it, too, marrying him and moving with him to Las Vegas, where they buy his long-coveted motel and prepare to live out his dream. though she still seems to have her doubts. Nevertheless, she soon marries Garwood. They use her inheritance to buy a motel in Las Vegas, fulfilling Garwood’s dream. Unfortunately, Susan discovers that she has been pregnant (by Garwood) since before her husband’s death. Given that Gilvray was sterile, this pregnancy threatens to point toward Garwood’s guilt in Gilvray’s death, so Garwood decides they must keep the pregnancy and birth a secret. He takes Susan to a deserted former mining town to complete her pregnancy and have the baby, which he plans to deliver himself. When Susan’s labor begins to go wrong, however, Garwood fetches an elderly doctor from a nearby town, planning to kill the doctor after the successful delivery of the baby. Susan warns the doctor, who is thus able to escape and call the police. They arrive at the ghost town and shoot down a fleeing Garwood in a scene that ironically repeats Garwood’s earlier shooting of Gilvray—down to the fact that both are similarly dressed in bathrobes when they are killed.

The Prowler is partly notable for Heflin’s performance as a jittery sociopath, barely able to maintain a presentable exterior. Meanwhile, Garwood’s ruthlessness pursuit of the American dream and the banal nature of his ambitions present a powerful critique of the American way, as does the suggestion that frustration due to his working-class origins has contributed to Garwood’s bitterness and cynicism. On the other hand, Garwood might be a bit too pathological to be a representative figure, thus muting the political allegory of the film. David Caute, for example, grants that “Losey and Trumbo intended an exposure of America petty-bourgeois materialism” but concludes that in the process they “lost their way in melodrama” (92). On the other hand, it should be pointed out that, in 1951, Hollywood was in the midst of an anti-communist witchhunt as a result of which anti-capitalist commentary in film was becoming increasingly difficult. One could, then, see the melodrama as a sort of smokescreen to provide cover for the film’s political message. Along these lines, it is worth pointing out that the film was scripted by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, using his friend Hugo Butler as a front.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953), directed by the important noir actress Ida Lupino, is the only major noir film to have been directed by a woman. It stands out in other ways as well, such as the fact that it is set almost entirely in a remote, outdoor setting of Baja California, in Mexico (though it was actually filmed in the desert-like Alabama Hills near the Sierra Nevada in California. However, thanks to the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, a master of the noir style, the film has plenty of noir atmosphere; it seems dark, brooding, and even claustrophobic, despite the rural setting. As Bob Porfiero and Alain Silver put it, “The Hitch-Hiker’s desert locale, although not so graphically dark as a cityscape at night, isolates the protagonists in a milieu as uninviting and potentially deadly as any in film noir” (in Silver and Ward, 130). And Lupino, formerly relegated to “women’s films” in her directorial career, acquits herself well here in a chilling, well-crafted film that many regard as a masterpiece.

Based on the real-life story of multiple murderer Billy Cook, who killed six people in California in 1950, The Hitch-Hiker features noir regulars Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy as Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen, two regular guys who head off on a planned outing in Arizona away from the humdrum routine of their middle-class American lives. Then they deviate from their plan and head into Mexico, where they and their car are hijacked by Emmett Myers (William Talman), a psychopathic killer who has already left a string of bodies from Illinois to Southern California. He clearly plans to kill Collins and Bowen as well, but first he takes pleasure in tormenting and terrorizing them as they drive through the desert hills. On the way, his contempt for their comfortable middle-class lives is made abundantly clear, adding a touch of social commentary to the film. Indeed, while Myers is not exactly a reputable social critic, the film makes it clear that he has a certain point and that Collins and Bowen need this outing as an escape from the stultifying routine of their daily lives, embodied in the wives they have left behind. At the same time, the film also makes it clear that Myers is the way he is because he, like so many others, has been excluded from the benefits of the lives that Collins and Bowen are living.

Ultimately, Collins and Bowen are saved, and Myers is taken away by the Mexican police. And yet, an odd sense of menace remains, given the double bind in which ordinary Americans like Collins and Bowen find themselves. On the one hand, dangers abound in the world at large, posing a threat to their comfortable middle-class existence. On the other hand, that existence itself is a danger to their very humanity, threatening to reduce them to the status of mindless drones, working away in an attempt to maintain the comforts to which they and their wives (absent in the film except as ghostly scapegoats, suggesting the air of misogyny that runs through contemporary American society) have become accustomed.